A spectacular public park located on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Garden of the Gods is supposedly the most-photographed site in North America. I couldn't find any data to back that claim up, but anyone who has been to the park knows that it's entirely possible.

The entire park is only about 1340 acres. Its centerpiece, the proper "Garden of the Gods," is an area of strange and wonderful rock formations, the result of eons of irregular erosion on crumbly, red sandstone and similar sedimentary rocks. The erosion is a continual process - I wandered through the park when the last remnants of a recent snowfall were melting in the midday sun, and bits of crimson rock crumbled off in my hands as I scraped snow off a large boulder. Signs warn visitors to watch for falling rocks, particularly after storms. One of the park's most prominent features has fallen to weathering within recent times: the famous "Bear and the Seal" was reduced to a mere Bear in 1942.

The Garden of the Gods lies at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and a magnificent view of Pike's Peak can be had through the Siamese Twins formation. Other notable geological curiosities include the whimsical Kissing Camels, the Steamboat Rock, the Scotsman, the stately Cathedral Rock, the huge Gateway Rocks that stand watch over the park's entrance, and, of course, the world-famous Balanced Rock. Looking ready to tumble at any moment, this huge boulder arose naturally as layers of softer rock at its base wore away, leaving it with only a narrow support. Tourists have been eagerly posing for photographs with this spectacle for almost as long as cameras have existed, but only since the early 1930's have they been able to do so free of charge. In 1932, the city, already the owner of most of the Garden, bought the Balanced Rock from an enterprising huckster who had fenced the area off and made a fortune charging a quarter for admission, more for a picture.

Though visited by the native Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes for centuries, the Garden supposedly got its name from a pair of prospectors. One remarked it would be a good spot for a beer garden, while his companion declared that such a garden would be "Fit for the Gods."

The unique status of the Garden of the Gods as an internationally famous natural landmark in a city park comes from its original owner, railroad magnate Charles Elliott Perkins, who had originally bought the land for a summer home but instead left it open for the public to visit. Upon his death in 1907, he willed the property to the city of Colorado Springs on the condition that it always be free and open to the public, unmarred by unnecessary structures and profit-making enterprises. A plaque was placed on one of the Gateway Rocks announcing the park's origins and commemorating Perkins' generosity.

The central Garden area (Perkins' original donation) of the park contains most of the rock formations; its vaguely alien magnificence is a drawing point for travelers from foreign lands as diverse as Sweden, Japan, and Pittsburgh. (these are merely people I met in my short visit there!) The remainder of the park contains walking trails and narrow roads leading to the more isolated rocks. It's a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. There's a visitor center across the main road from the rocks, and you can get a free map of the park there. If you can't actually get to the park, check out http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Trail/8119/rocks.html for some good pictures.

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